Suffolk Closeup: County’s financial bind leads to cut bus routes

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration intends to eliminate eight Suffolk County Transit bus routes as of Oct. 3, including several on the East End. 

The routes to be cut include: 10A between North Haven, Sag Harbor and Southampton; 10D between Hampton Bays and East Quogue; 10E, the “Hampton Bays Loop;” and S90 between Center Moriches and the Evans K. Griffing Building at the Riverhead County Center.

Suffolk County government is in a financial bind and the Bellone administration seeks to save money by cutting the routes. The problem is largely a result of Suffolk government’s heavy reliance for its income on the sales tax.

How heavy?

Try a whopping 58.9 percent of the county’s operating budget for 2016 is based on sales tax receipts. The problem now is, the money is not flowing as expected. And that, according a just-issued report by the state comptroller, is because of the drop in gasoline prices, causing significantly less sales tax money to be collected at gas stations in Suffolk, as well as other areas of New York State.

Mr. Bellone two weeks ago ordered county government to go into an “extreme austerity” mode because of the situation. He issued a “notice of funding deficiency,” and announced, among other cost-saving efforts, that all purchases of more than $250 in any county department would have to be approved by his budget office, plus the elimination of the eight bus routes.

Suffolk County has had an scandalously limited public transportation system. It’s been a factor in highways here being crowded with automobiles. Shelter Island is an oasis in terms of this, but Islanders will experience bumper-to-bumper East End Suffolk traffic on a trip to Riverhead and being stuck in the congestion, especially during rush hours, on County Road 58, or on the South Fork, dealing with the vehicular horror show now on Route 27, County Road 39 and Montauk Highway between western Southampton Town all the way to Montauk.

After years of public advocacy, in 1980 Suffolk County Transit was created. Through the years, with more advocacy, its system of bus routes has been expanded. Also, bus service is vital for people who can’t afford autos and for senior citizens who no longer drive.

Aren’t there less important county functions that could be reduced than bus routes that cut down on traffic congestion and help residents get to work and our seniors to get out and about?

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, assistant deputy county executive for public information, said last week the decision to cut the eight routes came after “careful analysis” by the county’s Department of Public Works. These routes, she said, were found to have the fewest riders. By eliminating them, the county “will save $4 million on an annual basis” and, because they would be cut late in 2016, “$1 million this year.” She said “in the future, additional cuts may be necessary and the Department of Public Works has already identified additional routes that may be necessary to cut to save additional money.” Further, she said “Suffolk County provides the largest local bus subsidy of any county in New York State.”

Public hearings on the route eliminations will be held in the Suffolk Legislature’s auditoriums, in Hauppauge on Sept. 8, and in the Evans K. Griffing Building in Riverhead on Sept. 9, both from 3 to 7 p.m.

Suffolk County has been in financial difficulty for years. Indeed, every year since Mr. Bellone took office in 2012 he’s declared a “state of fiscal emergency.”

The key source of the problem predates Mr. Bellone. When I started as a journalist in Suffolk in 1962, the local revenue financing county government came from property taxes and fees. That caused difficulty for Suffolk’s elected officials when people received their tax bills at the end of the year, saw a large increase and became, naturally, upset. This despite the fact that the county property tax has always been a small portion of the property tax bill. In the property tax bills for 2016, for example, a countywide average of 68 percent was for school taxes and only 11.4 percent was for “county purposes.” Using a sales tax affects citizens a little at a time, and is not as noticeable as a lump sum requirement.

In 1965, New York State substituted a sales tax, initially at 2 percent. The state share is now 4 percent. And in 1969, the state allowed counties and cities to also have sales taxes. Suffolk’s sales tax started in 1969, also at 2 percent and now it’s 4.25 percent. An additional 0.375 percent of sales tax paid in downstate counties, including Suffolk, goes to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The combined sales tax total in Suffolk today is 8.62 percent.

Counties and cities all over the state have been using the sales tax increasingly to finance their governments, with Suffolk high on the list of those making use of it. But the sales tax is an always unsteady source of money and becomes especially so when certain events intervene, such as when the Great Recession hit in 2008 and people cut their purchases back big-time.

The most recent reduction in sales tax receipts and its connection to what’s been happening — happily for motorists — at gas stations is documented in the just-issued report by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. It’s titled: “Local Sales Tax Collections Slow in First Half of 2016, Decline in Motor Fuels Price a Continuing Drag on Sales Tax Growth.”

Mr. DiNapoli’s report notes that “between 2014 and 2016 the price of gasoline declined. This decline likely contributed to local governments collecting … less in fuels sales taxes in the first half of 2016 compared to the first half of 2014.” It added that “the decline in motor fuels tax collections from the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2016, isolated from other factors, caused the overall decline in sales tax collections.”

Suffolk was among the state’s counties with a decline of “between 35 percent and 40 percent” in “motor fuels sales tax collections” during this period.

Suffolk’s reliance on the sales tax to fund government is impossible.

grossman_karl150The author is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.